Where does poetry come from?

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I come from haunts of coot and hern, 

I make a sudden sally, 

And sparkle out among the fern, 

To bicker down a valley. 

Even before Freud, people would have observed that dreams are the result of our unfulfilled desires. This is plain common sense. Freud made this idea systematic without bothering to make it scientific. He resorted to speculations. 

Art and literature, especially poetry, seem to have the same origin as dreams when we considers the similarities in their form and content. We all have our instincts, mostly biological in nature. But our sense of self, the ego and our sensitivity to the world, the super ego, suppresses our instincts.

Finding no way to materialize, our instincts go for the second options, they ideate as dreams in our sleep when our guard is down,  and when we are watchful as daydreams  or art or poetry, good poetry that is. In dreams art and poetry our instincts go for two kind of disguises, condensation in which several instincts are all fused into one and displacement in which instead of hitting the bull’s eye we hit something else. 

Translated into poetry these disguises become metaphor and metonymy, two basic ways of symbolism. Metaphor which we also seen in homonyms and other figures of speech and metonymy as we see in sublimation. These are only convenient examples.  

Freud calls this wish fulfillment which is not the same as materializing our real instinctual desire. Needless to say it is not as good as the real, second best. So, when it comes to poetry, like a child who over decorates a toy house, we embellish the second best to more satisfactory for us and more enjoyable for others.  

For example, one may wish to have children but has only Dorothy as a companion. No chance there. The sexual instinct is here suppressed by the ego and super ego, and rightly so. This leads to an ideation of the instinct into an incestuous dream about the sister (more direct) day dream about a solitary reaper (less direct) or a poem on daffodils (symbol of fertility, disguised or indirect) 

We don’t have access to Wordsworth’s dream but his two poems are there for us. In Solitary Reaper we see several of the instincts fused into the form of a reaping girl, enjoyment, fertility, (“Reaping and singing by herself”) Thus the girl becomes a metaphor or the poet’s (and everyone else’s) biological instincts. 

In Daffodils, it is not only that the flowers being symbol of fertility is again a metaphor, it is also a sight the poet has often enjoyed watching with his sister as they went for long walks in Lake District. Perhaps, more than the symbolism, it is their association with his sister which prompted the poet.  The lines,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

say a lot.

The Stoat by John MacGahern

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Autobiographical to a large extent, The Stoat by John MacGahern, an Irish writer, is also a study of impulses and instincts. The story is bracketed off literarally by a display of animal insticts and aggression. This story was rewritten several times and revised more than once.

The story pivots on different themes. Apart from human relationships and the animal insticts in all living beings, the story is also about values, persoal refinement and opportunism. The first paragraph and the last paragraph are mostly about how, a rabbit is killed but not eaten by a stoat. The reference to a stoat appears three more times in the story. Thus inhuman aggression can be considered the main theme of the story.

All night the rabbit must have raced from warren to warren, he thought, the stoat on his trail. Plumper rabbits had crossed the stoat’s path but it would not be deflected ; it had marked down this one rabbit to kill”

This sentence in the second paragraph of the story repeated at the end of the story raises the story from the level of mundane allegory to that of subtle parallelism. However, there is no sin of generalisation here as there are different kinds of characters in the story. Contraty to this parallelism, it is a dying lady who stalks a robust widower.

Miss Mcabe was the real name of a lady with whom the authors father was in love. So, the author himself can be considered as the narrator of the story. The story which has been a puzzle for several critics, is different from its true life version only in its details. It being not so different from real life is one reason why the author gave up working on it any further and avoided it from his major collections.

The story has a very simple plot. A father rents a cottage where he spends a month every August. He, a widower, plans to remarry and puts up an advertisement. After testing and trying about a fifty responses, he settles for Miss McCabe, a school teacher. One day, the son brings home a rabbit which a stoat attacked and left half dead. The son had ended its life. The son cooks it and enjoys it with his father and Miss McCabe who was staying at a hotel near the beach close to them. That night, back in the hotel, the lady shows signs of heart failure. On hearing this the father decides to leave her. In the end, the boy feels more than a little irritated about the father’s ways. In between we hear also about the boy’s uncle with whom the boy is in very good terms.

The key point appears right in the middle of the storry. The uncle and the boy are in a bar where he tells the boy that he likes his company and hopes to see more of him if his father remarries.

He’d like that too. With his uncle everything seemed open: ‘Life seems to have no purpose other than to reproduce itself. Life comes of matter and goes back into matter. We inherit it and pass it on. We might as well take as decent a care of it as we can. You can’t go against love and not be in error.’ Nothing was closed. This freedom was gaiety, even though it seemed that it caused him to seem most lonely.

Eventually, we see how much the son is influenced by his uncle and how much he resents his father’s behaviour and how he chooses to stand alone and be strong. For his uncle, nothing was closed. For the father, nothing was open and he could not even reveal to his girlfriend how his son came by a rabbit he cooked for her.

The interactions between the boy and the uncle on one end, between the rabbit and the stoat on the other end and between the father and his girls somewhere in the middle, this story gives a spectrum of relationships, from co-existence to parasitism to agression and dominance.

When the boy brings the dead rabbit, the father teases the boy’s and his uncle’s humane side,

“No doubt, it can be another specimen for youself and your uncle to mull over”
To this the boy has a proper reply hinting at the father’s narrowminded politics,

“Well, it is as good as what you find in The Independent

This defines the difference between the uncle and the father since the political magazines generally care only about the lives of humans and this is only a natural outcome of the misled quest for survival. The uncle and the son have soared over what is natural and refined themselves to have better values and principles in life. When he comes to know the father’s joke about getting grant to improve the look of women who responded to the ad, the uncle coments that,

“…the man must finally have gone off his rocker.”

and says to the son that,

“At least, if he does get married, it’ll get him off your back.”

Finally it is the son who tries to make the father see that he is being too selfish. But the father fails to see the point. The insight and objectivity help the son see deep into situations and people. He sees ‘with terrifying clarity that it was the stoat the father had glimpsed in Miss. McCabe’s hotel toom’ where she was recuperating after a heart attack.

Even though the story is ridden with details, everything is carefully chosen to make meaning. Miss McCabe and the father revels in the dinner and looks forward to more while the son feels bad about having been part of what he sees as buffoonery. The uncle later contrasts a driving licence with a marriage licence. Another example is the opportunism shown by the people at he post office when they see so many responses to the marriage ad. All this obviously support the theme.

Coming by Philip Larkin

How successful is Philip Larkin in depicting the transition between winter and summer?

Change of seasons, an uncommon theme in modern poetry, is explored beautifully in ComingPhilip Larkin, a poem by Philip Larkin. In its totality, it provides us with a real life experience of transition between two seasons.

The title itself refers to transition and in a subtle way points to the popular phrase ‘this too shall pass’. Moreover, time is a common topic of interest in modern poetry and season is all about time. Towards the end of the poem, the poet says,

And can understand nothing

But the unusual laughter

which is to suggest that the whole poem is more of an experience rather than an exercise in language.

Change of season is a metaphor of life itself. To endorse this idea, the poet brings up an image of a couple reconciling ,

Feel like a child

Who comes on a scene

Of adult reconciling

Such an incident will surely make people happy. It is also noticeable that he says ‘adult’ and not ‘adults’ thereby making it an adjective of reconciliation. Moreover, the warmth of the sun which has stayed away returns to the earth to make it fully blossom.

Bathes the serene

Foreheads of houses

The comparison is all the more significant since winter connotes not only hatred and being cold-shouldered but also frigidity as well, while spring entails warmth and warm-heartedness as well as fertility and potency by extension.

Imagery is what makes the poem very effective. By choosing a set of harmonious images which refer to the happiness and sunny days, the poet is able to convey the heart-warming effect of spring.

On longer evenings,

Light, chill and yellow

Bathes the serene

Foreheads of houses

Since the poem abounds in a wide variety of images, it can be classified as an imagist poem. TO depict the various appearance of both the seasons, the poet strings together some fresh visual images.

Images of melodious sounds are also heard in such phrases like ‘thrush sings’ ‘fresh-peeled voice’ and ‘unusual laughter’. Of these ‘fresh-peeled voice’ is double effective since the first word gives a visual image of a freshly peeled fruit and then the same image enhances the beauty of the bird’s song. Furthermore, this voice is contrasted with the stolid, solid ‘brickwork’ in the background.

After a time of inactive winter, it is time for some dynamic movements in summer. All will be up and about. The kinesthetic images (those of movement) make the poem more dynamically energetic. ‘Coming’ and ‘reconciling’ are dynamic verbs while ‘spring’ echoes of movement.

In the second half, the repetition of the first line,

It will be spring soon—

It will be spring soon

suggests the skipping spirit of a young child and soon the poem moves from ‘forgotten boredom’ to ‘unusual laughter’.

The poet also uses his keen sense of sound all through the poem. The first stanza begins with a lot of soft consonants and ends with hard and hard sounds

Thus from

Light, chill and yellow

we move over to

Laurel- surrounded

deep bare garden

Thus the poem in its deceptive simplicity, manages to highlight in very subtle ways, the transition between winter and spring. Philip Larkin has successfully employed his skill at creating a very precise effect of his choice.

Sorry, Shakespeare!

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There was an odd issue which had been troubling me for days. I brought it up during my causal discussion with people who were aware of Shakespearean literature, though not in depth.
Today, strangely, Debora, a Grade IX student brought it up. I instantly gave her my best compliments. What she asked me was why Shakespeare is considered such a great writer through his stories are all very silly.
It still takes a child to comment on the nudity of kings.
First I told her that he should not be blamed for his stories since almost all his stories came from other people. He is not called the thief of thieves for nothing. A plagiarist, a born kleptomaniac on whose nature nurture will not stick!
But why? The answer lies in his last play The Tempest.  His own story in more than one way. But, what story are we talking about here! There isn’t any.
So, creating a plot was not one of his talents.
But, a man who began his career as a hostler outside theatres could have trained himself to create any number of winding plots instead of borrowing silly plots from anyone, like a desperate Bassanio repeatedly borrowing money from Antonio. And the plots he borrowed were so popular that it was hard to say who told the story first.
But then, we say that he was a hostler near the theatres for some time. But no one is sure. No one is sure where he was for long years. So much is simply missing from his life like a maths table we learned too early in life. We can make up for what we have lost.
OK, his tales were not his. But his wisdom is wonderful. We can quote endless examples from him.
You mean from him or his books.
From his books, but is there a difference?
Yes, it is not like quoting from Dickens or Shelley. When we quote Shakespeare, we are only quoting what he made his characters say. And none of his characters are angels. So, be warned. Quotations from Shakespeare are not like maxims you can live by. See what those characters did in life or what others did to them. So, there goes the Shakespeare who lives in quotations like Dr. Jonson predicted.
So, was he just a popular money-spinning playwright, pleading guilty about beautifying himself from feathers from the other playwrights?
No, far from that.
The fact is if we call Shakespeare a writer, we should find another term for those who just write and if we don’t want to change that, then we should find another name for Shakespeare’s profession. Such is his greatness.
He is the most misunderstood of all the writers in the world. Not because his language is archaic but we are all pretentious. We don’t take literature as seriously as it has to be taken. Our tastes are so low that we would sit and watch any opera had we not been watched by others. This is where Shakespearean tales are a  boon. We can enjoy all those silly stories and not feel guilty.
We enjoy those stories and we take them to class and the children too are enchanted by the melodrama. Since neither they nor we read enough, it never occurs to us that most writers come up with better plots and Shakespeare could not have hoped to win even the school drama writing competition with that kind of stories. A man signs his own death warrant when he borrows money. His friend wins a rich lady by lottery for which she offers him illegal help and with the same inclination to do illegal acts she later saves her husband’s friend misrepresenting her gender and presenting herself as a lawyer though she would have thought a ‘plaintiff is a common quarrel’ (plain.. tiff)  ( from The Twisted Tales of Shakespeare by Richard Armour). The argument she comes up with is not even worth mentioning here. How can this be a classic story? It is not.
To cut it short, Shakespeare had higher aims than making an extra ducat by being a playwright. Each of his plays is meant to teach us something. Like his art which conceals his artfulness, he hid his tracks completely. In The Merchant of Venice, he wanted to tell us that appearance is deceptive or that one should not judge a book by its cover. On the cover, it says The Merchant of Venice, but it is hardly about the merchant. Portia is the protagonist and Bassanio is no merchant. Antonio does not lead the story; he only signs his death warrant and waits to be ripe to fall off. Taming of the Shrew, considered to be a true anti-feminist play has spiritual aspirations if we are shrewd enough to see it all. He has brought us the medicine because he knew we are all sick. He was only 31 when he wrote Romeo and Juliet, the story of which he got from a three thousand line long poem. What he says about Juliet’s parents is something none of the other writers would dare to say even today. Jacques, in As You Like It, looks at a fool with wonder and whispers to himself: Motley is the only wear. In this brief blurting out, Shakespeare has revealed his view of life. He has given those words to a philosopher, no wonder. The hero’s mouth is not worth it. Life is so meaningless that the only way to live it meaningfully is to live like a fool. Charles Chaplin’s Tramp and Samuel Beckett’s Gogo are celebrations of this idea. And they are not the only ones who took this seriously.
We should take a good look at someone like T S Elliot or James Joyce and then see how great critics find even him not as good as Shakespeare. It is then that we realize the level of loving wrong we do to Shakespeare. It is then that we find we are not equipped to gauge the greatness of this writer. We are small-time astronomers who look up and wonder at the stars on the firmament while rocket scientists are arranging guided tours to Mars.  While we are waiting to wise up to appreciate the real excellence of Shakespeare, let us not belittle him by measuring him with such small yardsticks.

To Build a Fire (1908 version) by Jack London

Written at a time when modernism was in its cradle, To Build a Fire by Jack London was a forerunner of modern fiction. Modern Literature does not treat a work as a finished product. It is only a conduit through which the reader and the writer interact to create art as a befitting product of the imagination of both of them. In other words, modern literature is written in such a way that each writer will be able to read it in his own way. Multiple layers of meaning will be packed into the work so that multiple reading is facilitated.

Title and Theme

Fire is a symbol of several sundry things, on of them being life. The question ‘why was the lamp lit if it had to be put out like this and so soon?’ looms large in the story, since the man dies and untimely death. The man’s struggle to build a fire and his inability to do so entails the tragedy. In both ways, the title is highly appropriate. One of the ways in which this story can be read is as an allegory. An allegory means, the work has almost one to one correspondence with another aspect which is not literally stated in the work. Geroge Orwell’s Animal Farm is a perfect example. Unfortunately, allegory is considered one of the lowest kind of writing because of its usual simplicity, even though it is possible to write a very complex allegory and win accolades. Here the path the man takes symbolizes life and he could be any human being pursuing it with high hopes. Thus life and its uncertainties can be considered as the theme of this story.

Style

Loneliness comes in two types, the depressed aloofness, and the joyful solitude. The man in the story experiences both. A writer usually takes some characters and puts them in a smaller world and talks about them to make people understand more about life. Tempest is an obvious example. Jack London makes it more intense by putting a single character in a totally deserted locale. The style chosen makes no bones about the story being an allegory. Here is an analysis:

Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man turned aside from the

main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led

eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the

top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun

nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed

an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was

due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It

had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.

That man is lonely and unsupported by anything divine is a basic tenet of existentialism which is the main feature of twentieth-century literature. This is stated in the very first phrase, the day the man choose to travel was not just cold and grey like it could cold and grey in real life, but EXCEEDINGLY cold and grey. This word ‘exceedingly’ warns the reader that it is not about an ordinary circumstance. The ‘dim and little-travelled trail’ makes the journey even more exceedingly extra-ordinary. The phrase ‘excusing the act to himself’ heightens his loneliness even further as though he feels his loneliness, still manages to give company to himself. The sky is bright though the sun is absent (hopelessness) and the absence of a guiding light, a guarding star makes the day look gloomy to the author though not to the character. “He was used to the lack of sun’ shows us that he has come to terms with the idea that there are neither answers nor any hope to be found in this world. Like a typical character in existential literature, he waits, he waits like Godot.

Setting

Thus is the stage set for the tale to unfold. The second paragraph of the story gives us more details of the setting. It is deliberately written without using objective descriptions of colour, length, distance, and shape. This objective way of description looks unimaginative and it engenders in the reader the same boredom felt by the traveller down his uninteresting trail. All the four basic elements, earth, water (ice), fire and wind, plot against this unfortunate traveller. While thick frozen ice is one kind of danger, the thinly frozen ice on pools of water is another kind. With the challenges it offers, the dangers it hides, the destinations it promises, the uncertainty it holds, the regrets its hoards, the selfishness it enforces, the apathy it preserves, the trail is a perfect allegorical symbol of life. In each and every sentence describing the trail, as listed above, we see one or another aspect of life itself.

The man keeps thinking about the different parts of his body. As they too have started rebelling against him, he feels alienated from them and considers them as what ‘he’ possesses. For him, his hand and the mitten that it covers are of the same category. He sees a closer friend in his mitten which dries when he puts them near a fire than his own hand which fails him at a crucial point of time. In existentialism, a person’s inner life is called his essence, almost the same way in religions it is called his soul or atma. The essence is acquired after a man is born or has an existence. Thus in existentialism, existence comes first, not the essence. The soul (the essence) as talked about in religions, comes in to being first and then acquires its existence or body later. Here, the man, by alienating himself from his body, thinks more of his essence. For him, his life is his essence. His body is only a belonging.

It struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were.

This is not in the spirit of existentialism. This is furthered when he decides to face ‘his death with dignity’. Thus he identifies with something beyond his body. This too is not in the same spirit as existentialism which says that life is much more important than anything else. This is seen more in the animal which minds its own life and stays with the traveller only till that time when he can support its life. When he fails to support himself, it runs away looking for its next supporter. For its, life, more than dignity, is everything. However, the man’s body too incidentally colludes with the environment.

Characters

The story is the slow death of a man who has dreams, plans and schemes, and the survival of an animal who has none of these.

Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.’

The dog knows from his experience what to do and does not trust even its own master let alone a God it never saw. The man, even when he is told by a wiser person not to venture out at that time of the year, ignores all warning and hitches his life to hope and finds that life is all too uncertain for any hope to have an iota of substance. Unlike the dog, the man has memories, regrets, guilt, tomorrows and schemes. He saves the best for another occasion since he is sure there is another occasion. He could have eaten the food. He could have waited for another day. But he makes the wrong choice in each case. He does not wait for another day to travel as has been advised and saves the food for another time and dies without tasting it. He is willing to kill his companion for his own safety. In everything he does, he is the opposite of the dog. The dog, with all its animal instincts, does not, like its brother wolf, kills the man for food. It does not pursue the smell of food inside the dead man’s clothes. Every moment the man does something or the other which corresponds to what a man does anywhere at any point of time in his life, whether he is deserted or accompanied. The man’s name not given also makes the reader read this story as an allegory.

Point of View, Tone and Mood

The story is told from the omniscient point of view (God’s Point of View). This gives the reader good access to the thoughts, words and deeds of both the man and the dog. The story is written dispassionately and disinterestedly with not much sympathy shown to the characters from the part of the author. This calls for more sympathy from the reader as he thinks the writer is being unjustifiably insensitive. However, this only enhances character identification and it makes the reader feel the pain of the character more. The general mood fo the story too from the very first is that of a very depressing one and purposely the story takes a very slow pace, just like life.

Afternoon with Irish Cows

2015 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature: On Africa © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center

 

Scientists mostly ask questions about the world outside themselves. It is very rare that they question themselves or try to learn about themselves. There is no subjectivity here.

But artists, on the other hand, keep questioning themselves and ask questions to themselves. They are introspective and want to know more about themselves. Poetry, for example, is mostly one way of doing this. Thus, a poem becomes an attempt to answer the question: Who am I?

The poem “Afternoon with Irish Cows” by Billy Collins is a typical example for such introspections. The poet does look out and sees cows and observes their behaviour which is in contrast with his.

This contrast can be seen all over the poem. In a beautiful country, the poet prefers to be indoors while the cows prefer to be outdoors,

Stepping all day from tuft to tuft

their big heads down in the soft grass,.

The distinction starts there and continues in different ways. The cows live from moment to moment, in the real world of the meadows which provides them with food while the poet lives in a world of imagination too. He describes himself realistically

I would sometimes pass a window
and look out to see the field suddenly empty

But then reveals his world of imagination with he says,

as if they had taken wing, flown off to another country.

But imagination cannot provide a realistic answer and the poet continues to observe them with a view to understand them which by contrast may help him understand himself. So, he does not believe that they have flown away but opens the front door to look for them and there they are going ahead with their routine mundane things like eating, chewing the cud and lying down on their sides, completely relaxed.

Then later, I would open the blue front door,
and again the field would be full of their munching
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,

The black and while patterns that the poet refers to as a map is of importance here. These patterns which only roughly resemble maps still remind the poet of maps because of his interest in the world and its affairs. But for the cow it is just a pattern on their body and they don’t mind getting them dirty by lying on their sides. It is nothing to be proud of or flaunt.

We pride ourselves as social animals, but we commit uncivil and unsocial acts. The newspaper, the stone wall and the knife are symbols from such a world. But the cows, which do not seem to communicate like we do, are also social animals and when they rest lies down in different direction to guard one another.

facing in all directions, waiting for rain.

After such an observation the poet’s interest in the cow comes out in the open when he says,

How mysterious, how patient and dumbfounded
they appear in the long quiet of the afternoon.

They only “appear” dumbfounded, mysterious and patient. They are not to take things lying down, for,

… every once in a while, one of them
would let out a sound so phenomenal

 

Given the kind of world he lives in, this noise brings only memories of torture and pain to the poet’s mind.

… which one of them was being torched
or pierced through the side with a long spear.

But looking at the cow, the poet finds that the cow was only being self-assertive.

… it sounded like pain until I could see
the noisy one

Through mooing, the cow was only asserting its nature, voice and behaviour and it is not ashamed of its ‘unadulterated cowness’ but rather proud of its self.                       

The cow’s self expression does not come from its soul or mind as some poet deem their poems to do. It is a product of its body.

… she gave voice
to the rising, full-bodied cry
that began in the darkness of her belly
and echoed up through her bowed ribs into her gaping mouth.

The cows have been here long before us and they have been trampling the hills, munching away the grass, polluting bays and cursing the rain. But unlike humans they were always apologetic about their atrocities and the poet believes that every mooing of a cow is only its apology for what its race did. The poet’s face coming up behind the wall is a later incident in history and shocks the cow with a premonition about the worse things the new race can do to the world.

Now the afternoon is no afternoon but the second half of the earth’s own life as it is unapologetically hurriedly pushed into its grave by the human race. And Ireland, though a land of great writers, is also famed to be a land of faction and civil wars where people pride in killing their own siblings in the name of God and faith.

But the cows are the same anywhere, anytime. They don’t kill one another or damage the environment in any serious way. Yet they are apologetic.

At the same time, through a series of concrete images, mostly visual and kinaesthetic but auditory and tactile too, the poet has managed to give us an almost direct experience of his surroundings. The visual imagery, like

the field would be full of their munching
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,
facing in all directions

recreates the scene in our mind while the kinaesthetic images, like

her bellowing head
laboring upward as she gave voice

make us feel how dynamic the scene is.

Thus in highly subtle ways the poet is able to suggests what he learns from watching some Irish cows one afternoon, without being preachy or overtly didactic. Even we set aside the philosophic content of the poem, there is still enough in the poem to enrich us in a pleasing way because of the skill employed by the poet.

The Rattrap

The Rattrap by Selma Lagerlof, the Swedish Nobel laureate, reads like a folk tale but holds a very meaningful message for us. In the context of a man’s experience around Christmas time, the story explores the edge experience has over intelligence, knowledge and wisdom. It also highlights the importance compassion has in transforming a person.

The story features a vagabond who earned his living selling rattraps. He made rattraps using the scrap metal he found. When he couldn’t find the raw material, he begged or stole them. He always looked hungry and led a life of monotony and boredom.
Then, one day, a thought struck him. He found that the world was very much like a rattrap. The world offers wealth and other pleasures just the way a rattrap offers cheese and meat. Once we go in for them, we are imprisoned in it forever and it entails nothing but eternal misery. He went around telling this idea to everyone he met.
Though he tried to spread this great philosophy of life, a truth which is expounded by all religions, it only remained in his brain as a piece of information. He was intelligent enough to figure it out and talk about it. He was wise enough to understand its significance. But when it came to practising it, he failed miserably. He realized this only when it was spelled out to him by an incident.
One dark evening he was walking along the road and knocked at the door of a poor old man’s cottage. The old man let him in, served him food and gave him shelter for the night. They played cards and the old man told him his story. He used to work in Ramsjo Ironworks but now he was a small time crofter who had just one cow. He said that was good enough for him since it had even given him thirty kroners in a month. Like the Bishop did to Jean Val Jean, he even showed the vagabond the money kept in a cloth bag hung on the wall.
The next day both men left the hut at the same time but the peddler came back and stole the thirty kronor from the old man. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment he got hunted by his own conscience and he thought he was being followed. He left the highways and entered a forest, but as much as he walked, he was not able to come out of it. He realized that his own medicine had not worked for him and that he had been trapped by money and that the forest was his prison.
At some point later in the same night he heard sounds from the Ramsjo Ironworks and moved in that direction. He reached the factory and went in. Nobody asked any questions since it was normal for vagabonds like him to walk in and enjoy the warmth of the furnace in a chilly night like this.
Just then the owner of the mill walked in. He addressed the peddler as Captain Nils Olof mistaking him for an old friend. The peddler didn’t contradict him. The miller invited him home and this the peddler refused since he feared getting himself exposed in better lighting. Later the owner’s daughter Elda came to get him and forced him to go with her. She had even brought a wrap for him since it was too chilly outside. The peddler went with her. That night both the father and the daughter were so nice to him and made him wear good clothes. But seeing him in those clothes they found they had made a mistake and he too confessed that he was only a peddler. The father thought of calling the sheriff to arrest him. The vagabond told him that he was innocent and if he was dragged into trouble that would entail another cycle of misery through which the miller would also get caught in the trap. His words made the owner change his mind but he asked the peddler to leave. Now the daughter intervened saying that they couldn’t ask him to leave since they had invited him. Moreover, it is Christmas Eve and the man deserved a peaceful life at least once in a year. She served him a good supper. The next morning he slept on and was woken up only for lunch and dinner. He was even invited for the next Christmas.
That night at church, Elda heard that one of the old crofters of the ironworks had been robbed by a man who went around selling rattraps. The iron master now feared that the man might have stolen all their silver spoons. When they returned home the peddler had already left. He had left a tiny rattrap for Elda. There was a note attached to it. It was his confession. There were thirty kronor in the rattrap and he asked Elda to have the privilege of returning it to the old man. He thanked her and her father for the being compassionate to him and thereby transforming him. His intelligence, knowledge and wisdom only took him close to hell (symbolized by the hot burning furnace and the thirty kronor hinting at Judas’s reward for betraying Christ). His transformation came from his real life experience when he was shown compassion by two strangers even when they found him a sinner.

Illusion and Reality in Macbeth

Illusion and Reality



Illusion as a corollary of reality seems to be a favourite theme for Shakespeare. The theater itself is a world of illusion and Shakespeare talks endlessly about it. The news from the new world and the flood of Greek and Roman literature also would have influenced Shakespeare to explore this aspect of life.

When the witches say ‘fair is foul and foul is fair‘, we are told of how the world is seen differently by people depending on what they are. Evil operates through deception. Macbeth’s mind has an inkling of the deeper water he is led to when he says,

So fair and foul a day I have not seen.

Duncan refers to Macbeth as a worthy gentleman and pays with his life for his inability to see through Macbeth’s outward appearance. Macbeth is called noble and also a valiant cousin. But in reality Macbeth is a potential traitor. Duncan trusted the earlier Thane of Cawdor. Now he trusts Macbeth and makes him the new Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth is happy when Duncan plans to visit his castle but Duncan fails to see why Macbeth is so happy about the visit. Both Duncan and Banquo find the atmosphere at the castle wholesome and welcoming. They don’t know about the serpents that reside there.

Lady Macbeth welcomes Duncan very politely and expresses her desire to serve him very effectively. But we know that she has already made up her mind to kill the king. She herself refers to the occasion as the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements. She tells her husband to don a pleasant appearance to hoodwink the others. She says,

Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it,

She tells him that ‘to beguile the time he has to look like the time’. Macbeth more than echoes her words when he says later,

False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

He later gives her a taste of her own medicine when he says,

Let your remembrance apply to Banquo:

Present him eminence, both with eye and tongue

 

Macbeth is presented as a great warrior who vanquishes all his enemies.  But his main enemy is within himself. He says the he has given his soul to man’s eternal enemy. He fails to see that the enemy is within himself in the form of ‘vaulting ambition that overleaps itself’. His courage and determination fail when he confronts Lady Macbeth. He is not powerful than his enemies in anyway. But she is able to work on him by fanning his own desires. We hear her counsel Macbeth and persuade him with diabolical cogency.

Appearance and reality becomes very clear when Banquo’s ghost appears. Hallucinations are used very effectively to reinforce this theme. The witches give Macbeth some false promises which he considers as protection against his downfall. But he fails to see the double meaning in their words. He is killed not by a man born of a woman. He is killed by a man who was brought into this world by ripping open his mother. The foerst which is thought not to move, finally moves toward Macbeth’s castle in the form of branches held by his enemy soldiers. This kind of cheating makes Macbeth call the witches ‘these juggling fiends’.

When Malcolm meets Macduff in England, he suspects Macduff is a spy. Malcolm pretends to be unfit to be king and fools Macduff. In effect, they both misunderstand each other. Later Macduff is found to be a trustworthy person and Malcolm is found to be a man of integrity. There several instances of life considered as a drama and the world as theater, both examples of reality and illusion. The supernatural also is made use of to reiterate this aspect of the world.

PHRASAL VERBS

Though everything can be learned, nothing can be taught and this is truer in trying to teach a language than in anything else.

For decades I have been trying to teach phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are phrases of usually two words, the first being a verb and the second a preposition. This is a hot topic when you are being tested for your knowledge of the language. And most children mess it up.There are too many we don’t use now, and there too many coming in which doesn’t make the problem any easier.

The students were made to sit around in groups of five and asked to utter a sentence in which a phrasal verb is present.

OK, then the five others have to alter at least three or four words of that sentence except the phrasal verb and repeat it. They don’t have to find a new context and they are not doing rote repetition and they have a fair amount of creative work to do. Noam Chomsky says that any sentence you utter has a mark of creativity on it.

This activity is moderately successful. Moderate success is both an excuse and an encouragement for further experiments.

So, after trying several other methods the following method was developed, partly from the students’ contribution and partly from my frustration.

Instead of using a list in which the phrasal verbs are arranged alphabetically (which means the prepositions in them which come second are in random order) I rearranged my list clustering the ones with the same prepositions together. I got a good number of clusters since there are several phrasal verbs that feature the same preposition. The preposition ‘up’ turns up in many of them.

One of these clusters, with twenty phrasal verbs all ending in ‘out’, was given to them and were asked to come up with a short article or a note or an anecdote in which the maximum number of these phrasal verbs were present.

“Sir, can it be a story?”

An expected question.

“Of course, but the point is to make it as short as possible with as many of them as possible,” I replied.

I had a second thought.
I said, “You can even write a verse using them. Since the second word is the same preposition, it will be easy to rhyme.”

I too sat down to write one. When there is some writing to be done, I find the kids angels. Even they don’t know they are there.

“Sir, is it OK if it is a rap?”

An unexpected question/

“Then you will have to come here and rap it out!”

I told them the story of the Afro-American judge who rapped out a verdict of 1800 lines to a culprit who was a well know rapper.

“Wow, that is cool. THAT IS cool!”

Fifteen minutes later, I got up with twenty lines and told the class that they may come and read theirs out. Some whispered a vehement ‘no’.

“Anyway, I am going to read out mine. Not because it is mine, it is pretty good.”

Hooting from my unfortunate audience.

I read out my work and acknowledged the comments.

Another group read out a story. So tight and so memorable. They went back to versify it.

Now a girl came to the front of the class and said she needed the help of her friend to rap it out with gestures and all.

Then she began and the class was in rapt attention.

A spellbound English class, wow!

Everyone began to move their shoulders and then their heads and then their whole body but still very attentive.

It was really a good rap. The whole class burst out in accolade as she finished.

And I was witnessing the world’s greatest way to teach phrasal verbs.

How to write Book Reviews Movie Reviews and Radio Plays

Writing Book Reviews

You can download any number of book reviews from the net. Times magazine publishes proper book reviews which could give you good models. There are five steps in writing a book review

  1. Choosing a book
  2. Reading it
  3. Taking down notes
  4. Planning and writing the first draft
  5. Final draft
  6. Choosing a book:  For beginners, it is better to choose a 200 to 400 page novel with a good plot and interesting characters. It is good to buy a copy than to borrow one since you may have to scribble notes on the margins of the book itself. It is also good to choose a book in which the characters undergo some kind of change rather than those novels in which the characters are either heroes or villains, who have no change of mind or character, from the beginning to the end. Since you also have to mention a little bit about the writer, choose a novel by an established writer. Have some idea about a few of his other writing too so that it will be easy for you to see what the writer is actually telling us.
  7. Reading the Book: Read a little bit about the book before you actually read it. This will help you put the book in its right context and understand its true meaning. True meaning? Yes, some writers are good at saying one thing and meaning something else. For example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is more about international politics than about an actual animal farm though the book keeps talking about animals and farms.
  8. Taking down notes: Since the book is quite long, it is easy to forget examples of different aspects of the book and its style, like dialogues and descriptions, characterisation and setting. So, it is good if you can keep some ‘running notes’ or scraps so that you don’t have to go back to the book or spent time searching ‘that crisp dialogue the heroine had with a rose-bush’.
  9. Planning and writing the first draft: Make sure you can write a convincing, interesting book review which will give a reader a clear idea about the book.   The following aspects should be mentioned in the review:
    1. The author, his reputation, awards, publisher, year of publishing
    2. The theme (what is it all about)
    3. The plot, in three short paragraphs (how it all began, went ahead and ended)
    4. Characters (what kind of people are they) the setting (where does it take place) narrations and style (how well written)
    5. Personal Comments ( what is your final opinion on the book and why)

5.  Final Draft: Make a good, legibly written final draft with no errors. Add a picture of the book or the writer at the end. Provide the list of URLs if you have browsed any. Read it out loud to yourself to see if it reads well.

 

 

 

 

Writing Movie Reviews

Movie is typically a modern-day art form and it encompasses most of the other art forms, like music, literature, fine arts, theatre and dance.

Movie reviews of all sorts are available on the net and take a look at them. Great movies have been reviewed by great movie critics and such reviews are also available.

Writing a movie review is very much like a writing a book review. There are some differences in the aspects.

Steps: Read whatever is available about the movie or the movie makers and his crew before you see the movie. See the movie at least twice and take down notes regarding the different aspects like:

Introduction: Name of the movie, director, production company and the main actors

First paragraph

  1. Theme
  2. Plot and the script
  3. Characters
  4. Dialogues

Second paragraph

  1. Cinematography
  2. Lyrics
  3. Music
  4. Dance

Third  paragraph

  1. Technical Details: Sets, location, costumes, lighting, sound recording make-up, side effects and stunt scenes

Concluding paragraph

  1. Popularity and critical acclaim

Writing Radio Plays

Though we don’t realize it thousands of good radio plays are produced around the world every year and some media producers like the BBC offer awards and good remuneration to the best among them.

Radio plays are easy to produce. All we need is a really quiet room, some sound effects which you can easily manage if you are creative enough, a good story with a lot of dialogues, a few actors from among your friends and a recording device which can even be your mobile phone.

Using a narrator to compensate for the absence of visuals is an easy but effective technique. Choose a fable from Aesop and spend an afternoon writing, editing and producing and that alone is enough to get you going. Best Wishes!!!!

SK